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Amazon's Premier League Live Stream Kicks Off with Qualified Success
Amazon delivers solid debut with room for improvement; EPL will watch with an eye to launching its own "Netflix for football"

Amazon will be relieved that its debut broadcasting the English Premier League (EPL) was generally well received—in both meanings of the word—but tougher tests lie ahead, not least in tonight’s six-game simulcast. 

Last night was the first time EPL matches have been aired purely online and not also on linear channels. While there were reports of crashes requiring reboot, persistent buffering, and pixelization, it was the lag in the stream’s delay which was most widely panned. Goals in the Burnley v Manchester City game were alerted on social media between 15 seconds and a minute before seen live.

There were also reports that different screens streaming the same match in the same room were not in sync. 

"The Premier League might have scored an own goal with these sets of TV rights, given its quest to get a web giant on board," says Paolo Pescatore, Tech, Media & Telco Analyst, PP Foresight.

"Success for Amazon this week may convince more pure play over-the-top players to challenge the stranglehold of the big pay TV brands," says Steve Miller-Jones, VP of product strategy, Limelight Networks. "Delivering a seamless experience for large live audiences, however, is incredibly challenging as there are a lot of things that can go wrong."

Amazon hasn't always got it right technically when streaming live sports. Having secured exclusive UK streaming rights to the US Open tennis last August, it was inundated with complaints about picture and sound quality and subscribers criticising an inability to replay or record matches. 

This time, no major disruptions were reported, although technical issues such as buffering and lag will need addressing if Amazon and the EPL are not to attract flack. 

"All eyes will be on Amazon to deliver without any glitches," said Pescatore. "Amazon has had plenty of time to consider, identify, and address any potential streaming issues. However, the task of being the exclusive broadcaster for the domestic and global feed should not be underestimated."

Amazon’s spent £90 million ($118 million) for a package of rights created by the EPL specifically for online broadcast. For the next three seasons, Amazon will stream two rounds of 10 fixtures through its Prime Video service, beginning this week and followed by another simulcast on 26 December and the final game (Wolves v Manchester City) on 27 December.

Production-wise, it has played safe. Amazon enlisted stalwart sports production company Sunset + Vine and BT Sport to produce match feeds, using BT Sport’s regular studio hub to anchor coverage. Presentation was routine and not especially innovative, as if Amazon wanted to minimise any potential hitches outside of its control. Even the on-screen graphics were devoid of glitz; branding was restricted to the Amazon "tick" logo under the score graphic. 

The ability to localise stadium sound or choose commentary was praised; as was the ability to view real-time match statistics alongside the match feed and to restart the stream at any point. These functions were available on PC and laptop (if it was available streamed on TV, I couldn’t locate it on my 55-inch 2018 model LG smart TV). 

Amazon Prime's EPL interface as seen on a laptop

More attention will focus on tonight’s six-game live stream, including the popular derby between Liverpool v Everton, and on the ambitious plan to stream nine matches simultaneously (some kick-offs are staggered) on 26 December—traditionally the EPL’s peak viewing period. 

The online retailer is using the matches as a loss leader to drive subscriptions to its £79 ($102) annual Prime service, which offers TV and music streaming. Timing is significant since it comes off the back of Black Friday and ties directly into the festive season. 

UK users are being offered a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime, so effectively the EPL matches can be viewed for free—a factor which may have alleviated any customer complaints. BT has added access to Amazon Prime Video to its BT TV set-top box and is allowing its subscribers a free 6-month trial.

Amazon Prime members—of which there are more than 15 million in the UK—can stream up to three games on different devices at the same time. 

The broadcast also included adverts in the build-up coverage. Pescatore expects this inventory to grow.

"With the wealth of customer data Amazon has collected over the years, it is very well positioned to serve customers relevant ads. This, coupled with Premier League, will make it extremely attractive to brands and advertisers." 

If Amazon make a success of this high profile experiment it will be emboldened to take a larger share of the rights when bidding for the 2022-25 season commences in early 2021.

Its success will be also scrutinised by the EPL as it considers launching its own "Netflix for football" streaming service without TV partners.

The Premier League mulled test launching such a service in Singapore but pulled the project at the start of the year, selling rights instead to local telco Singtel.

Launching a standalone service without pay TV in the UK would be a considerable risk, which is why it will look to test the waters in other markets first.

With rights to the 2016-19 seasons peaking at £5.1 billion and reaching £4.5 billion for 2019-22, it may be that the value of EPL rights has plateaued.

According to consultants PwC, "We are fast approaching a tipping point where digital will overtake linear. Sports content will need to find creative ways to appeal to fans that are 'digital first' in order to maintain their attention."

UEFA, the sport's European governing body, launched an OTT service last summer as a possible prelude to going direct to consumer. Populated by archival and behind-the-scenes material, it will include highlights of German Bundesliga matches from next season. 

"The threat of fragmenting Premier League rights further poses a major headache for the teams," says Pescatore. "Clearly we've reached a tipping point in terms of value, so they need to think of other ways to maximise the value of a prized asset."

Winning and owning the rights is only one part of the equation; the user experience has to stack up as well. Rebuffering continues to be the primary viewing frustration for consumers.

"One of the big challenges is not overwhelming the infrastructure when everyone crashes through the digital turnstiles just before kick-off," advises Miller-Jones. "Having a truly muscular and agile content delivery strategy in place with a strong backbone network and capacity to scale so means play won’t be interrupted. 

"The sign of success for Amazon will be that this week people are talking about the controversial referee decisions and substitutions, not the fact that they missed parts of the game waiting for the coverage to load."